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The tangled history of barbed wire

illustration by jeremy traum for the boston globe

Earlier this month, the Hungarian government, scrambling to seal its southern border against the influx of North African and Middle Eastern refugees trying to reach Germany, placed a bid for 10,000 rolls of razor wire. Though the deal was worth hundreds of thousands of euros, a German manufacturer, Mutanox, wouldn’t sell to the Hungarians. “Razor wire is designed to prevent criminal acts, like a burglary,” explained the company spokesman. “Fleeing children and adults are not criminals.”

Had you doubts about the cunning of history, lay them to rest. From Germany’s welcoming of refugees to its outrage at Hungary’s violent efforts to stop them, the country that, 75 years ago, made barbed wire into the symbol of man’s inhumanity to man has done much to overcome its past.

Yet, the Mutanox spokesman did not fully uncoil the history of barbed wire. Contrary to his claim, one of the hallmarks of our age is that fleeing children and adults have often been considered criminals. Entire peoples, by dint of their race, religion, or social class, have been judged as standing outside either the law or humanity. Stretching between them and us, figuratively and literally, has been barbed wire, whose history tells us much about the plight of today’s refugees.


Like inventors from Joseph Guillotin to Alfred Nobel, whose creations escaped their original purpose and were yoked to evil ends, Joseph Glidden would have been shocked at what became of his. In 1874, the Illinois farmer and New Hampshire native, fastening sharpened metal knots along thick threads of steel, created barbed wire. Thanks to its high resilience and low cost, the rapid installation of the coils and lasting dissuasion of the barbs, the wire transformed the American West. Ranchers could protect their cattle against predators, both wild and human, as they pushed the frontier ever further west. The wire itself came to be called “devil’s rope.”

The results were deep and lasting. As Dempsey Rae, the scarred cowboy played by Kirk Douglas in “Man Without a Star,” declared about the wire: “I don’t like it or the people who use it.” More real and tragic than disgruntled cowboys intent on their freedom, however, was the fate of the Native Americans. They were not jailed behind barbed wire outright, but the Dawes Act allowed all “excess” land not claimed by individual Native Americans to be sold to ranchers, who immediately enclosed their lands with barbed wire, thus crippling the traditional migration and hunting patterns of the tribes. But as the world discovered quickly, they were not the last.


Scarcely a decade later, the Boer War, fought between the British Army and Dutch settlers in South Africa, revealed the striking military uses of Glidden’s invention. The British stretched hundreds of miles of wire, punctuated by guardhouses, along their rail lines to shield them against Boer attacks. By dicing and slicing the African veld with wire, the British made a great advance in the long struggle to prevent the movement of animals or fellow human beings over land we claimed as ours.

Not coincidentally, South Africa was also the birthplace of the modern concentration camp — the demarcation of space by barbed wire, but this time to keep people in and not out. When the British rounded up families from their farms and villages to throttle support, material and logistical, for the commandos, they needed to build camps for the civilians as quickly and cheaply as possible. Barbed wire was as versatile as duct tape: ideal for a thousand different emergencies, only all of them far more insidious. The British turned to barbed wire to serve as the walls for the camps where the civilians were relocated. Though they soon became breeding grounds for disease and despair, these camps, were devoted to the control, not demolition of a people. Nevertheless they gave not only a name, but also a blueprint to the camps that erupted across the European continent in the decades to come.


Before the camps, though, came the trenches. Barbed wire frames the lunar landscape of World War I.

Oddly, Kirk Douglas again serves as our guide. Just as he is scarred and defeated by barbed wire in “Man Without a Star,” in “Paths of Glory” he must submit to it as Colonel Dax, ordered to attack an impregnable German gun position. To respond to the unprecedented situation on the Western Front, where the usual war of movement had coagulated into a static line stretching from the English Channel to Switzerland, barbed wire was heaven-sent. Or, more accurately, US Steel sent. The company produced nearly 3 million miles of barbed wire during World War I.

It was a cheap, rapid, and effective means to stop the movement of large forces of men bent on your destruction. When combined with another recent invention, the machine gun, barbed wire became more imposing than the largest fort or cannon. As advancing soldiers on both sides quickly discovered, the massive bombardments that preceded their attacks might have leveled a fortress, but was mostly useless against barbed wire.

Had he starred in a movie about the Holocaust, Douglas would have hit modernity’s trifecta, completing a kind of barbed wire trilogy. Barbed wire, an accessory to earlier wars, stars in WWII. The French philosopher Olivier Razac observes that when we see a photo of barbed wire, we tend not to associate it with prairies or trenches, the American West in the 19th century or European West in the early 20th century. Instead, we reflexively associate it with the European East — baptized the “bloodlands” by historian Timothy Snyder — and the death camps to which they were home.


How could it be otherwise? Imagining himself back at Auschwitz, Primo Levi gazed at our everyday moral world. How much of it, he wondered, “could survive on this side of the barbed wire.” Not much, we learned. How extraordinary that so simple a thing — a bit of sharpness suspended in air — could carry such tremendous meaning. Yet come the Holocaust, as the philosopher Reviel Netz observes, barbed wire embodied the asymmetry between an all-powerful state and utterly powerless mass of people. In a sense, “the concentration camp system was a recapitulation of the animal industry, now a human industry . . . bringing the ecology of flesh and iron in the age of barbed wire to its culmination.”

As history since Auschwitz reveals, barbed wire is the infernal gift that keeps giving. From Siberia to Srebrenica, Glidden’s invention proved its functional and symbolic resilience, one that now inescapably shapes our understanding of today’s refugee crisis. A day hardly passes that a front page or magazine cover does not frame a photo of migrants from Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea, pressed against barbed wire barriers along Europe’s frontiers. Familiar with the iconic shots of the Bergen-Belsen or Bosnian camps, we might tell ourselves that the photos of today’s migrants are somewhat misleading. These men, women, and children are not, strictly speaking, penned in concentration camps, much less death camps.


Adolf Hitler (second from left) in front of the barbed wire fortifications at Kreuzbuche, Germany in 1938 after German troops advanced and occupied the second zone of Sudetenland.AP

But that is strictly speaking. It does not take a great stretch of moral imagination to portray great swaths of North Africa and the Middle East as one vast concentration camp. It is a region where suffering, disease, and despair are the rule — a camp whose walls of barbed wire have been strung up not by the failing and murderous governments inside, but rather by us along its edges. The barbed wire fences uncoiling in France and Hungary, Italy and Greece are not keeping undesirable elements outside of Europe. Instead, they are keeping those same elements inside zones where death, not life, is commonplace.

From the concentration camps of South Africa to the death camps of Nazi Germany, from the trenches of northern France to the tundra of eastern Russia, the collective memory of the 20th century has a texture. It is one as hard and cold as steel — wiry steel punctuated with razor-sharp knots — now stretching into this still new century. Primo Levi asked how long our moral world would last inside the fences of Auschwitz? As refugees continue to flee to Europe, the question needs to be inverted: How long can our moral world survive as we stand and watch them from outside the barbed wire?

Robert Zaretsky is a professor at the University of Houston and is author most recently of “Boswell’s Enlightenment.”